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Theater Review: Café Society Swing

Historical music diluted by a history lesson

Allan Harris in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Charenee Wade in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Charenee Wade, Allan Harris and Cyrille Aimée in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Evan Pappas in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14
Cyrille Aimée in Cafe Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, NYC 12-14

Café Society was a nightclub in Greenwich Village that, for a decade beginning in 1938, presented the cream of the era’s jazz artists, as well as comics, gospel groups and folk singers. Cheekily dubbed “The Wrong Place for the Right People,” the venue was run by entrepreneur Barney Josephson, a left-leaning proponent of integration at a time when race mingling, both onstage and in the audience, in places where music was presented was virtually unheard of, even in hip Manhattan. Josephson, often relying on suggestions from famed talent scout John Hammond, booked both black and white performers (mostly black), including Billie Holiday, who first sang her controversial “Strange Fruit” there, as well as Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Paul Robeson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and many others. An unrepentant radical, Josephson often showcased politically themed events at Café Society and was hounded by Commie-hunting journalists and politicians for his efforts. After his brother Leon was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era, the club’s attendance went downhill and it soon closed, leaving in its wake a reputation as a game-changer and sacrificial lamb.

All of this information is delivered during the course of the new off-Broadway musical Café Society Swing by a narrator between musical numbers. All of this information can also be found in Wikipedia, and therein lies the problem with Café Society Swing, which opened Dec. 21 at the 59E59 Theaters in New York. Rather than weave the fascinating, historically significant story of this important venue and club owner into the action, it’s relegated to side-of-stage spoken narrative by one individual, in the first act playing a journalist gunning for Josephson, then a sympathetic bartender in the second.

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